Four decades ago Margaret Thatcher launched a long war on working people, with a series of legal, political and industrial attacks on trade unions. In 2020, we continue to pay the price.
We see rising inequality and workplace insecurity; young people are no longer guaranteed a better quality of life than their parents. Almost 4 million people are in insecure work mostly on agency, casual and seasonal and zero-hours contracts. UK workers are missing out on around £3.1 billion of holiday pay every year and many workers don’t have the right to sick pay.
Today, it is increasingly acceptable to be told half-way on your way to work, at the crack of dawn, that you are no longer needed. More and more workers become used to holidays not being guaranteed. For many, the prospect of a sick day has become more akin to a luxury. Worse still, many people now view this situation as normal.
When I started work as a firefighter in 1983, there was far greater security in employment, with huge swathes of the UK workforce still unionised. The Thatcherite right argued that in collectively fighting for better pay and conditions, unions interfered with the operation of market forces and ultimately threatened profits.
That’s what drove Thatcher’s onslaught against the unions; a long campaign which introduced whole series of laws designed to shackle our movement, alongside well planned attacks on key groups of unionised workers; most infamously the battle against the miners in 1984/85.
And this strategy, alongside de-industrialisation, had an impact. Today there are 6.9 million unionised workers, almost half of the 13.2 million in 1979. The prospect of shifting the balance of power from capital to labour can sometimes seem further away than it has ever been.
When people picture a trade unionist, they think of someone of around my age, in their fifties – and, to be frank, they’re not far from the truth. A recent study found that 77% of unionised workers were over the age of 35, while just 4% were aged between 16 and 24.
But it needn’t be this way. The Labour Party has seen a huge influx of young members under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, inspired by Labour’s radical socialist platform.
Labour won the youth vote in almost every seat in the country at the last election – there is a generation who know that another world is possible. Yet these newly enthused left-wing voters aren’t, for the most part, joining trade unions.
Rebecca Long-Bailey has made clear that membership of her Labour Party will go hand-in-hand with membership of a union. She recognises that it was Labour’s shift away from so-called centrism that brought many people, young and old, back home to the Labour Party.
That shift has made Labour, once again, a party of and for trade unions. But it is a shift that is not guaranteed. That’s why this leadership election is so important.
My union, the Fire Brigades Union, re-affiliated to Labour in 2015 because we knew that Labour was finally a party that would stand with us on a picket line and Rebecca is the only candidate who has vowed to stand with unions in disputes. We should ask all the candidates in this election the old question, “Which side are you on?”
Labour’s 2019 manifesto could have reinvigorated the trade union movement, unshackling workers by repealing anti-union laws and empowering workers to defend themselves in the workplace. Labour finally recognised that the stifling of our unions did not begin with the 2016 Trade Union Act.
There are decades of anti-trade union laws that the New Labour government failed to address – and Becky is the only candidate who has pledged to overturn this unjust system. It is alarming that Keir Starmer, the other leading candidate in the leadership campaign, seems prepared to row back on this commitment from Labour’s 2019 manifesto, agreed at both Labour Conference and the TUC. Trade unionists should not sit by while this happens.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is already building on Labour’s workers’ rights agenda, working with trade unions on proposals like a right to switch off, releasing people from the perennial pressure of having to work out of hours for free. Labour must build on, not step back from, a worker-led agenda.
December’s election defeat was devastating. The reasons behind it are complex, but there is no evidence that the public voted for another bonfire of workers’ rights. But that’s what we’re already seeing, as this government threatens our railway unions with so-called ‘minimum levels of cover’. This is just the first attack from this anti-worker government, and we must build a movement to challenge them.
And as trade unionists, we must also prepare for the future of work. My union and others worked with Rebecca to smash the fallacy that environmental action was in some way threatening to jobs and to workers. Together, at Labour Conference we put forward the case for a socialist Green New Deal that would have rebooted our stagnant economy with secure, unionised, green jobs.
Rebecca understands that the climate crisis is an emergency facing us all. Workers – here and across the globe – will be at the sharp end of the climate catastrophe. That’s why we need to engage with, not belittle, climate strikers. It is clear that direct action has pushed the climate crisis into the heart of political debate and they deserve our thanks for that.
Rebecca understands that Labour cannot be a party of the establishment and remain true to its name. Grassroots activism and workplace trade unionism are central to rebuilding Labour. We need to organise masses of people and mobilise the resistance to this Tory government to convince the majority that there is an alternative.
Rebecca’s socialist Labour government would aim to build trade union membership by one million in the first parliament. The Labour Party should be the political voice of the labour movement and under her leadership, we will not be heading back to the days where trade unions are treated as Labour’s embarrassing relative. All leadership candidates should remember, Labour cannot win power without us.
Jeremy Corbyn helped to transform British politics. His election led to the building of a mass membership Labour Party where we can discuss trade union rights, socialist economic policies and the challenge of the climate crisis. I did not agree with every policy decision or with every strategic move. But his election was a historic opportunity to build a socialist Labour movement for the 21st century.
Despite the huge setback of the general election defeat, we cannot allow that historic opportunity to slip through our fingers. While I’m sure I won’t always agree with her on every issue, there is no doubt in my mind that there is only one candidate offering a socialist way forward for Labour; one that rebuilds trade unions, that addresses the climate crisis, and that rebuilds our movement in every single community – and that candidate is Rebecca Long-Bailey.